Brian Cosgrove, review of Frank M. Turner, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion,
in The Irish Times (18 Jan. 2003), Weekend Review.

Frank M. Turner’s concern is primarily with Newman’s development up to his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845; and, as the title suggests, he takes his cue from the quarrel between the high-church Tractarians and evangelicals. These factions (recurrently understood in such political rather than in theological terms) competed, we are told, for their share of what Turner sees as the religious “market”.

What Turner fails finally to understand, in spite of his title, is why Newman and other Tractarians were so opposed to evangelical Christianity. For them, evangelical reliance on individual interpretation of Scripture could only generate further divisions in an already fissiparous Christianity. It was against such a centrifugal (and to Newman disintegrative) trend (“Protestants with their ever expanding theological novelties”, as Turner has it) that Newman sought a central Christian authority. In Newman’s view, Protestantism begets the exercise of Private Judgement, which in turn leads to a confused pluralism of separate perspectives, which finally generates scepticism leading to atheism. All of these insights are present in Turner’s account (his research is singularly impressive); but he seems unable to discern the pattern in the carpet.

Newman of course, provided his own account of the patternof his development in the Apologia; but it is part of Turner’s agenda to cast doubt on the validity of that master-narrative. He is, first of all, wary of the “apparent teleology” in the Apologia’s account, because in reality “contingency after contingency determined the emergence of Newman’s character and thought”. But from Newman’s point of view (and that of many Christians), there is no necessary conflict between personal, existential experience of contingency, and simultaneous fulfilment of a providential plan.

The second basis on which Turner impugns the validity of the narrative account in the Apologia is more serious. At stake here is the whole question of Newman’s sincerity, consistency and truthfulness. One obvious approach to the issue is to refer to Newman’s personal life his much-quoted statement about the development of church doctrine: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. Change, however, leaves a figure like Newman open to charges of inconsistency, and entails, moreover, stages of painful and confused transition. Turner holds that the letters to Mrs Froude in 1843 indicate “enormous confusion and scepticism in Newman’s thought ...”. One might further claim that such confusion was a factor across a wider period, from the publication of the notorious Tract 90 (in 1841) up to the conversion in 1845. Under Turner’s impressively incisive analysis, Tract 90 is judged to be “disingenuous” in its “wordsplitting and logic-chopping”; but on a charitable reading, might we not argue that it reveals a mind at the end of its tether, making a last ditch attempt to reconcile irreconcilables, namely the Thirty-Nine Articles, with an extreme (if not necessarily Roman) Catholicism? At risk was the disintegration ofNewman’s long-cherished hope of remaining Anglican while increasingly approximating (as his own conscience urged) to doctrines that were, for many, suspiciously Romish. There is, in any case, nothing of sufficient substance in Turner’s account to undermine the sense of consistent development, or the explicit passion for the true, so eloquently expressed in the Apologia.

Turner’s most thouught-provoking point arises from his invocation of the Swiss-bom Philip Schaff, a younger contemporary of Newman’s, who, while commending English Tractarianism, remained a committed Protestant, arguing for the equal validity (and ultimate reconciliation) of Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity.

The great value of Schaff is that he encourages a more critical perspective on Newman’s severe “either/or” binarism: either private Judgement or dogmatic Authority; either Protestant infidelity or Roman Catholic Infallibility; and, ultimately, either atheism or the certitude of Christian belief.

That point alone, however, is unlikely to reconcile the reader to an argument that eventuates, in -the final chapter, in preposterous conclusions: “Newman became a Roman Catholic so that he could continue to remain a monk, and, if possible, a monk surrounded by his Littlemore male friends”. Newman became a Roman Catholic because, in all sincerity, he felt that that was the only way he could terminate a painful religious quest. His conclusion one may dispute; but not the sincerity of his motivation.

There is a nice irony in the final chapter when Turner recalls a disagreement in 1845 between John and his younger brother Francis. Quite missing the point, Francis in a letter suggested that John could solve his problems by establishing a new church in which he would be free to act as he saw fit. Newman replied: “I do not think there is salvation out of the Church of Rome”. Turner tells us that when, as an older man, Newman recopied the letter from Francis, he added the note: “That 1 could he contemplating questions of Truth & Falsehood never entered into his imagination!” Prof Turner’s own imagination is not wholly immune to a similar charge.


[ Brian Cosgrove is Professor of English and head of department at NUI, Maynooth. His most recent book is the memoir The Yew-Tree at the Head of the Strand.John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion. By Frank M. Turner. Yale University Press, 740pp. £25 ]


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